Michael Gees :

“Classical music as we know it today

is not contemporary enough”


© Aart van der Wal, June 2011

Also published by MusicWeb International



The pianist Michael Gees was born in Bielefeld in 1953. In 1961 he won the first prize at the Hamburg Steinway Competition and at the Student Competition hosted by the Salzburg Mozarteum, where he subsequently studied. He made his concert debut in his native Bielefeld in 1963. He studied with Seydlhofer and David at the Vienna Musikhochschule before taking up his training in Detmold and Hannover. There, in addition to pursuing his pianistic career, he got caught up with jazz and composition. In 1986 Michael Gees appeared as composer, soloist and accompanist at the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival. Gees has been working with the tenor Christoph Prégardien for 27 years now. The title of his latest CD, ‘ImproviSatie’ refers to his improvisations on piano music by the French composer Erik Satie (Challenge Records CC72512)

Your musical experiments in your home town tell me that you want to get away from the ordinary and the predictable.
I don’t see a real future in the traditional way of performing classical music in our time. I just see an increasing gap between conventional performing models and a juvenile audience willing not to say eager to participate in what is happening on the stage. It will become more and more essential to convey still firmly anchored traditions to contemporary times. It will be recognised that the characteristic performance model doesn’t work anymore, mainly because classical music as we know it today is not contemporary enough; although I realise that I and my colleagues hold on to the rope. Today’s musicians are faced with a new generation that either wants to qualify itself as much as possible to participate, or do the opposite and watch TV.
This is why I first started in my home town Gelsenkirchen the ‘Forum Kunstvereint’, and in 2001 the ‘Consol Theatre’ ( By initiating new music, dance and theatre projects I felt I could motivate and stimulate both children, adolescents and adults to explore their own creative spirits in the spur of that moment. It was my response to hollow phrasing like we should really need something new, instead of just doing it. I was not at all surprised that it worked out well, as it did in Gelsenkirchen and at the ‘Musikhochschule’ in Cologne, although I still need to be careful and should not talk too openly about it, as my moves go against the conservatory’s main teaching courses!

These are experiments.
Two basic rules: all should start with the right musical education and no one should be afraid of experimenting. For instance, it is a great opportunity to work with a vocal group of modest size and to ‘musicalise’ with them the ‘noise of the market, the screaming of the marketeers’, i.e. to put a few headlines from a newspaper or from a radio broadcast to music and words in a spontaneous, improvised way and when each member listens to the other. Such a kind of opera or theatre can be about any situation as long as it makes sense, that is has a meaning. This ‘scream of the market’, comes to life in the music in its experimental form through repetition, meditation, minimalism, whatever: all might just come to the fore at a given moment and under specific conditions. This makes instantaneously sense as every member is composing and listening to one another at that very moment. This is all about artistic creation ex tempore.

  Erik Satie (1866-1925)

You recorded your artistic creation extempore by improvising on a number of Eric Satie’s piano pieces. However, wouldn’t you agree that this after all is spontaneity frozen in time?
This may be a crucial point, as it is very hard to combine those two things: recording and spontaneity. In a concert performance I completely trust the moment when all those ideas come to me and fade away. It happens once and that is it. There is nothing to hold on to. A recording is meant to last and it needs to be heard again, and again, and again. Of course, I hope that it goes that way, that my music is as good as Satie’s, but honestly, I’m not satisfied either with the concept of my recorded improvisations. Actually, it might be the best solution not to record it at all. It is hard to say but I realise that it is a compromise which is more or less dominated by sales and marketing.

When you would not have recorded it, many people would not have known.
That is the reason why I did it. We could both summarise the disadvantages but a recording may offer a much bigger podium compared to concerts.

Why improvising on Satie’s piano pieces in particular?
To me, Satie’s music does not really contain a double bar. It is never finished, but an open end instead that can be further developed. I emphasise ‘development’ because I always try to keep track with what is really in the piece. I believe that I have understood Satie’s various style elements and that I have incorporated these in my improvisations, which are as impulsive as they can be from my perspective, without any specific planning or forethought. The music just begins without my musical thoughts already firmly established, as it develops at the very moment of playing. The key word is and remains spontaneity. It does not differ from what I do with an ensemble or at the conservatory, or when recording Satie. t is impossible to describe what happened during the recording, but I noticed a special radiant atmosphere, with the music surrounding me completely. I didn’t even know where I was at the time!

You are clearly extending Satie’s melodic and harmonic range, adding substance to it that might even go against Satie’s own basic concept. I have always felt that Satie’s music is a kind of antidote against the late romantic avalanche of notes, the excessive creation and moulding of emotions and the gargantuan orchestras needed to make it happen. Satie’s music is the very opposite of romantic opulence, with its almost standstill movement, the lack of real development and the simplistic nature of melodies and harmonies he wilfully created.
Satie’s music gives me the chance to introduce my own improvisatory purity and variety without dismissing the beauty and sheerness of it. I don’t think that my improvisations go against Satie’s own concept. Let me just take one example, Satie’s ‘Danses de traverses’ or ‘Wrong dances’. There are three versions and they may sound very similar, but they are still different each time. Moreover, they are without a final conclusion, as if he sensed that there was always something more in this minimal – in the sense of movement, not minimalist! - music. There is always something new to discover and a diverse way of doing things, without sacrificing one’s own exactness, and each time with a different outcome, as it should be. I hear in these dances Satie’s implementation of the thought as a gradual one to start with, but from there a necessity to come up with something new all the time.

You are also a composer. That tells me that you know about key and sequence relationships, harmonic progression, form and structure, and so on. This is important because even a ‘free-style’ improvisation requires explicit reference points to satisfy the mind of the listener.
To be honest, I never wanted to know about that. Of course, I have an idea about how to shift from say F major to A major, but I also tell my students that there should never be some kind of a preamble that dominates the course of the music. If so, there is no absolute freedom to make it happen.

There must be an intellectual process going on.
When the improvisation ends in the original key it is just a matter of absolute pitch, not of a specific thought process. Even so, it may be part of that process not to reach that point. From start to finish I feel being homeless, on the brink of dreaming and being awake, a sensation which is hard to explain. I wholly lose my feeling for time. I’m shocked when somebody tells me that I have played eighteen minutes, where I had thought there were just eight!

The logic of your inventions from the outset tell me that you are not that homeless!
I am not improvising all the way down. Of course, I may have ideas I want to pursue. They are not on paper but in the mind. ‘Writing it out’ is happening instantaneously, on the spot.

In the studio you listen to the playback. There is nothing to dream about, and you might be tempted to make specific changes, or to be inspired by the recording producer to do this or that differently next time. You hear exactly what you have played and what still needs to come from that. I would call it an intellectual process.
At the recording I realise that I will hear again what I am playing and that others will, indefinitely. At these moments I might ask myself if it is really of any importance what I am doing, whether it carries adequate weight, that it is relevant. Later on I might hear that certain musical impulses don´t come through as I would have liked. The question that hunts me all the time is what could have been there besides what is written in the score, which is basically a series of instructions one only needs to follow. Why don´t I just do that? It would make life much easier! I hear it all around me: that I tamper with masterworks.

Your artistic interference cannot be denied.
The composer stands in between the form in which the music has been shaped and the musical world as we experience it today. After completion, a piece of music begins its own life and gradually becomes part of a culture of tradition. It can further develop from there, offering me many points of escape, from where I can get in or out, or just go nowhere by sticking to its original shape and form. I can imagine that each and every tone, or time length, or rhythm could be different. I can glance at the score with a blurred eye, its picture will fade and gradually become a new one, unveil new possibilities, new variations. As a composer I know where to get in and where to get out, where and how to return, to slip back in. These are my windows. But once in a while, like in this CD production, I end up in a quite different place then what I originally had intended, which is a great experience anyway: that something appears to be more suitable for that explicit moment only. The same with my concerts, which usually offer something new, even to audiences I have seen before, be it one or two years ago. They know what to expect from me, but even then I feel it necessary to explain to them what is going to happen this time, with for instance the music of Satie. I always try to spawn understanding, to transfer my love of music to my audiences. Under these circumstances I don’t think that ‘interference’ or ‘tampering’ is doing any justice to what I’m doing and what I believe in. Usually, I inform the public prior to my performance, as they need to understand what I am up to. This is why the program notes are so important as they have to convey my thoughts on the subject in a precise manner. I therefore take a close look to make sure that the organisers did a really good job on that. If not, I take it all in my own hands. No bad surprises here, please! I find it essential to tell my audiences exactly about my intentions, about what I’m doing. That’s good for them and for me, because it gives a certain freedom to all of us. At least they are not tied up by an expectation they think they should have. When the conditions are right the recital can be adventurous, exciting and exhilarating. Even when the music is sad it can be exhilarating, in the sense of stimulating. Only music can keep up with sadness, and felt in a thrilling and profound way. Just like departure or pain.

Your concerts appear to be never ending projects.
This is certainly the case, like for instance ‘Vorbild und Nachklang’. ‘Vorbild’ is Schumann, in this case his ‘Symphonische Etuden’, ‘Kreisleriana’ and ‘Kinderszenen’; ‘Nachklang’ my own explorations. My main goal is to make it a home, a great place to come back to. What I said before about my improvisations could also apply to a project as a whole: to get out, but also where and how to return, to slip back in. I feel at home where I can emerge myself in the music. Frankly, this is the only thing I think I do: to throw myself into it, to immerse myself into the play, without any questions, without comparison, without specific standards, without mathematics, without criticism. To me it is all about music in its purest sense. Satie, Schumann, Schubert, Mahler, I want them to emerge as if they are reborn at that very moment. Also this is a never ending project.

Do you feel a connection with Liszt’s art of improvisation on stage?
I see a great difference, as Liszt was strongly focusing on virtuosity, on witty playing with the technical resources of the piano.

There is also another side, in terms of poetic expression in Liszt’s almost emaciated late works, music that owns the same lack of instrumental ‘luxury’ as Satie’s.
Technique is only a carriage. My technique ends up in silence. A composer has long ears so to speak. He could hear music and its development potential in absolute silence. One idea supports the other, as a good argument would hold up a valuable point of view. They all together create a world, a piece of music; by me, or through me? Am I the creator, or just the mediator?

You have said that improvisation was once the flower on the wall of the classic concert scene. Today, it lives in oblivion.
All music first sounded as an improvisation before it was put on paper. Improvisations did not sound in small quiet rooms but in front of many people who could enjoy the sheer beauty of musical fantasies. To improvise requires courage and skill; future music requires improvisation. If not, there is nothing substantial that needs to be taken care of. It should all be focused on the spirits of invention and to share this with as many people as possible. You might think of musical invention, but I really mean invention that should encompass the ingredients of real life. Few people are able to create reality as an art, even without knowing that it is already there. Only the freshness of mind can point to a real future.

  Christoph Prégardien and Michael Gees

What is the challenge as a ‘free minded’ artist to accompany Christoph Prégardien in a lieder recital, like you do here?
I try to perform as it has never been done before, as if it has never sounded. To me it needs to feel like new, unexplored if you want. That is the risk I’m willing to take, to find the extraordinary, far remote from convention and tradition. I don’t want to look at authentic music as something that is finished and fixed, inert in its form, structure and meaning. No way. This might explain that Christoph never gets bored with me!
I work with him for 27 years by now, at least 25 performances annually all over the world, but there is always that challenge instead of routine. What he sings is the reality as he experiences it. He truly believes in what he is singing. This inspires me too, and it works both ways. In that sense we have a perfect partnership. He is definitely not the kind of artist who would embrace improvisations on stage. In that respect he is quite the opposite of his son Julian, the singer with whom I also have frequently performed and who likes to improvise as much as I do.

Any artist who often performs in a routinely fashion will finally lose his artistic momentum as an interpreter.
As a composer I would like my interpreters to fantasise about my music. What emerges from that is a spiritual world in which that music is already existent, but reveal new horizons. When it works for them, it works for their audiences: they would eventually participate in this highly creative process. Classical music is just music in a historical context. The fantasy must come from the performer.

What does musical history tell you?
Not much. I have always had problems with that, from the day I started my studies. All my teachers were desperate about me; they could not handle me as a student. My eagerness to improvise comes from my yearning to be free, not tied by tradition and prejudice. You have no idea how much they can restrict creativity. Artistic freedom is the greatest asset of any artist. I take nothing for granted, not even the score, which is also a kind of ‘instrument’. I need Satie’s score in front of me to have the notes in my vicinity, just to be able to glance at them once in a while to battle with my resistance against it. Can you imagine the struggle between what is fixed and the freedom I want to settle for? To read it makes me deviate from it!
It has always been that way that I wanted to play y own music, no matter what it was or what it meant to be. My own creations! I invented music, like all people can, and I still do. I believe that I have a strong musical mission.

Everybody can invent music?
It only depends on your fantasy, your imagination, presence of mind, not on technique. Ideas matter, not technique. The latter is nothing more but a learning process and acts as the conveyor belt for the ideas. One needs to know the characters to write a book. It is the mind that tells the real story.

It might be a small line between knowledge and inventive wisdom.
I get easily bored with what I play. For instance, I admire Steve Reich and I often try to improvise in the style in which he composes. This is fairly easily done because his style is not that complicated. Like in his Music for Eighteen Instruments, the way he adopts chords, harmonies and progressions. But to keep it all up as he can, just letting it happen anew a 1000 times! It is so healthy to do and to achieve just that. The mind is open and keen, it is really new and there is not a single moment that I feel bored; and your mind gets fresher and fresher after each and every repetition. At least, that is what happens to me!


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